The Psychology of Storytelling: Why Stories Are Ideal for Learning

Who doesn’t love a good story? For thousands of years, stories have been one of our most beloved forms of communication. They are everywhere; in the news, on reality TV, in our everyday lives as we interact with friends…the list goes on. Why are we so story-crazed? Can we leverage this fact in a meaningful way for elearning?

Stories are just uniquely packaged bits of information to help us find meaning in the world. Bottom line, our brains like stories because they simulate real life and activate neural structures such as language areas, sensory areas, memory, etc. Stories usually have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and they include characters, plot, setting, emotional content, and a continuous prompting of questions. All of these features are reminiscent of events and problems that arise in our everyday lives, so stories are a near-ideal formula for introducing new concepts and remembering information.

Stories Activate the Brain

When we digest unengaging information, such as through a bulleted list, the language-processing centers of our brain activate and that’s about it. The other rich neural structures such as sensory areas, memory, and decision areas remain mostly dormant.

Contrast this with a situation where we hear a story. Stories usually exist around cause and effect, which mirrors how we think in the real world. Stories present problems or challenges, a continuous prompting of questions keeps us engaged (ever heard the phrase, “let’s read on!?”), and the conclusion draws up solutions that leave us satisfied at the end (and hopefully teach us something). The insula, a neural structure, helps relate content in the story to our own experiences and feelings. Our problem-solving neural areas may even activate as the story progresses and we think about what could happen or how the characters could solve challenges. The more senses activated during a particular scenario, the more robust those concepts will be, and the better the information retention.

Why Self-Immersive?

Are some stories better than others? Think about a significant experience you had recently. You probably remember exactly how you felt when the event happened, as well as the exact events leading up to the experience. We are particularly likely to remember a story when we were emotionally invested in the plot and the characters. Stories where YOU are the main character are optimal for captivating attention and activating lots of neural structures.

Self-immersive stories provide rich scenarios for interacting with content and building new concepts as if those scenarios were significant experiences in our real lives. We are far more likely to remember something if we experience it rather than if we heard the same content in a lecture or read it in a bulleted list.

Making Stories Accessible in eLearning

Educators and trainers may be totally on-board with introducing content through stories, but creating self-immersive contexts where the learner can engage with the content is challenging. Storytelling takes a lot of planning, and including the right content takes even more preparation. Luckily, with elearning resources, educators and trainers can “shop” for courses that employ this successful model.

For example, Vertical Learning Curve (VLC) provides over 150 training courses where the learner becomes a character within a pre-planned story. Excellent animation and an elaborate pre-planned storyline creates active, engaging, and entertaining situations. Check out some of VLC’s courses.

Storytelling is a growing trend in elearning, especially as more advanced technologies emerge that include realistic animation and interactive interfaces. Try incorporating this model into your training to improve retention and engagement.

Read the rest of the series!

Post 2: The Psychology of eLearning: What Makes eLearning Memorable?

Post 3: The Psychology of Storytelling: What Can eLearning Creators Learn from Star Wars?